build, hack, tweak, share, discover, J
Written By: Charles Piatt
Chisel with 1 /2 n or 3 / 4 " blade (1)
Electric drill (1)
Frame clamps (optional) (1)
These will make it much easier to glue
the mitered corners of the box.
Power sander (optional) (1)
A belt sander or a handheld orbital
sander will greatly reduce your sanding
Router bit (optional) (1)
Using a router bit with your drill is the
easiest way to round the edges of the
holes in the blocks, but a large
countersink will do.
You can use a handsaw, but a radial arm
saw will make clean and precise miter
Side cutters capable of chopping the
• oak board ( 1 )
Board sold as 6" wide is actually 5V2"
wide, but it should be genuinely 1 A "
thick. Take a measure with you to the
store, to check.
• pine lumber (1)
Actual size will be 1 1 /2"x3 1 / 2 ".
• Wire nails ((1 packet))
• Brass hinges (3)
Small hinges are sometimes hard to find.
They should be no less than 9/16" and
no more than 1 1/16" wide when open,
and should be packaged with their own
• Small can of wood sealer (1)
Poly ur ethane is acceptable if it has a
• Can of spray lacquer (1)
• Spray paints (6)
• Foam paint brushes (2)
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nai ^ s v U " • Driveway marker stake (1)
■ • Quick-set epoxy glue (1)
• Sandpaper (1)
Imagine a handsome lacquered oak box with a lid mounted on brass hinges. The magician
opens the box to reveal a row of 6 brightly painted, rainbow-colored wooden blocks nestled
snugly inside. A long, rigid spike passes through a hole at one end of the box, through holes
in the centers of the blocks, and out through another hole at the opposite end of the box.
When the magician turns the box upside down, the spike holds the blocks securely in place.
The magician pulls the spike out, and all the blocks fall onto the table. He invites a member
of the audience to inspect everything, then asks the volunteer to name his favorite 2 colors
of any of the blocks.
The magician stacks the blocks back in the box, closes the lid, and replaces the spike,
pushing it from end to end. Holes in the lid reveal that the blocks still appear to be lined up in
a row, as they were before. Yet when the magician raps twice on the lid with his knuckles
and turns the box upside down, the 2 blocks that the volunteer selected fall out, while the
other 4 remain inside, still impaled on the spike. How did the chosen blocks escape?
How It's Done
The Escaping Blocks trick is many decades old but still can be a source of fascination and
amazement to anyone who hasn't seen it before.
The secret is simple. When the magician puts the blocks back into the box, he secretly turns
2 of them so that they lie to either side of the spike instead of being pierced by it. The lid
conceals this act from the audience, but because we all saw the blocks stacked in an
orderly row initially, our minds encourage us to imagine that we saw them go back into the
box in exactly the same way that they came out. Thus, we are fooled by our expectations,
and the cunningly arranged holes in the lid help to confirm what we believe to be true.
Remaking the Trick
This trick is still available in magic kits, but has suffered a terrible degradation in quality
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over the years. Instead of lacquered oak, the box is made from thin plastic, and has been
downsized to less than 2" long. The blocks are the size of Chiclets, and they aren't very
solid. The spike is barely more than a plastic toothpick.
I decided to re-create the original version using classic materials, and to construct the box
on a scale that would enable a performance in front of an audience of 20 or more. In return
for about $25 in consumables and a pleasant day in your workshop,
you too can have your own Escaping Blocks, and they will be sufficiently durable to last for
many decades, creating a renewed sense of wonder in each new generation that encounters
them for the first time.
To build the box, I found some strips of oak, 6" wide and W thick, in the hardwood section of
my local home improvement store. For the blocks, I wanted softer wood that would be easy
to shape, so I bought a plain old 2x4 pine stud and cut some square sections from one end.
For the rod, I found a "driveway marker" — a solid plastic, orange stake, Vi" in diameter and
pointed at one end. I could have used a wooden dowel, but the driveway marker was
stronger, with a shiny finish that lets it slide easily through holes in the blocks.
The geometry of this trick is crucial. When the magician secretly turns 2 of the blocks
sideways, they must still fit in the box while allowing a gap just wide enough for the stake to
slide between them. I found that the thickness-to-width ratio of each block should be about
3:7. Since a 2x4 stud is actually 1 1 /2 n x3 1 /2 n , it's ideal for the job.
If you want to make a smaller version of the trick, you can scale it proportionally, but
remember to add a thin space between the blocks and the box so that they don't fit too
tightly. Otherwise, they won't fall out when they're supposed to. In my version I allowed a
total wiggle room of Vi" vertically and another Vi" horizontally.
I used epoxy to glue the mitered joints at the corners of the box, with thin nails for extra
strength, since the box may have to withstand some abuse if kids play with it. I didn't use
brads or finishing nails, because the slight extra width of their heads could have split the
wood near its edges.
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Instead I chose wire nails 1 V2" long, which were a nice tight fit in guide holes that I made
with a 1/16" drill. I chopped the heads off with side cutters before pushing them in with pliers
(a hammer might have destroyed the mitered joints before I had a chance to strengthen
them). I used a belt sander to make the nubs of the nails flush with the wood. I sprayed the
oak box with several coats of semigloss lacquer, then coated the blocks with a sealer before
I colored them with spray paint. The part of the job requiring greatest precision was mounting
the hinges so that the lid would open and close nicely. The tiny screws that came with the
hinges were a little too long, and protruded through the lid. They, too, were made flush with
the wood by applying a belt sander.
After you finish your construction work, you'll want to perform the trick — but naturally you
should restrain that impulse until you've had a chance to practice it. The most important
moment occurs when you put the blocks back into the box. You have to rotate the center
pair without anyone noticing, and any hesitation or awkwardness will draw attention to what
you are doing. Practice the action in front of a mirror until you can throw the blocks into the
box without even looking at them.
This trick is so simple, you may feel tempted to tell people how it works. Just remember the
great paradox of magic: everyone wants to know the secret, but if you reveal it, they may
wish you hadn't.
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Cut 6 square pieces from the pine 2x4. Each piece should measure 3 1 /2"x3 1 /2"x1 V2". Drill a
V2" hole in the center of each. Round all the edges, preferably using a router bit on the
Cut the 2 end pieces from Vi" oak, 4 1 /4" wide by 4" high. The 2 shorter edges should be
beveled at 45 Q . Make a 3/8" hole in each piece as shown in the diagram and round its
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Now cut the 2 side pieces of the box from the same oak, each measuring 10W wide by 4"
high. Bevel the shorter edges to fit the bevels on the end pieces.
--Q-- h@ £)__
y-]"6 e o —
Holcsare spaced the same
a* tut holts in the lid.
-J W !—
Finally, cut the bottom of the box from oak, 3 3 A"x9 3 A'\ and the lid of the box, 4 1 /4 n x10 1 /4 n ,
Drill V2 holes in the bottom and in the lid, spaced precisely as shown in the diagrams.
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• Stack your blocks in a row, and position the pieces of oak around them. Turn the center 2
blocks and make sure that the box will still fit. Also make sure that the driveway marker
will slide easily through the holes in the blocks and through the end pieces of the box.
Paint the blocks with sealer, let it dry, then spray each block with paint. You'll probably
want to continue assembling the box, and pause to come back to the blocks and give them
another coat of paint every hour or so, till you have sufficient coverage.
Glue an end piece of the box to a
side piece and hold them together
with a pair of frame clamps for at
least 10 minutes. Make 1/16" guide
holes through the miter joint, snip
the heads off your IV2" wire nails,
and push the headless nails into
the guide holes with pliers, to
strengthen the joint. Add the
remaining sides to the box, and
then add the bottom of the box.
You'll probably have to sand it
slightly to fit.
• Sand your joints to remove any excess glue and make the nubs of the nails flush with the
wood. Remove sawdust with a damp cloth, wait 10 minutes for residual moisture to
evaporate, then spray the box with lacquer. You'll probably need several coats.
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Cut recesses for the hinges using a handsaw and a chisel. Since a chisel can be an
extremely dangerous tool, take care never to direct it toward your hands, even when
wearing work gloves.
Glue 1 hinge into place so that you can make sure the lid closes accurately before the glue
sets. Then drill 1/16" guide holes and screw all the hinges into position. Most likely the
screws will protrude, and you'll have to sand them down.
After that, spray the lid with lacquer, and your job is done. Allow everything to dry for at
least 24 hours so there's no risk of the blocks sticking inside the box.
This project first appeared in MAKE Volume 13 , page 70.
This document was last generated on 201 2-1 1 -02 07:27:46 PM.
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